House heads for Saturday defense vote

House leaders warned members there could be a rare Saturday session as the end-of-year maneuvering between the two chambers grows increasingly complex.

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) surveyed members Monday about their availability on Saturday, a day most expected to be home for the holiday, or at least not in Washington. Some aides say the endgame could go even longer.

ADVERTISEMENT
“Could you please reply no later than 2 p.m. [Monday] and let us know whether your boss will be available for votes on Saturday, December 19th,” said the Clyburn memo, which was obtained by The Hill.

The last time the House had a Saturday session was Nov. 7 when the lower chamber passed healthcare reform legislation.

Still on Congress’s to-do list: a defense appropriations bill; a jobs measure; a plan to deal with the national debt; several expiring tax statutes, including the estate tax; and healthcare reform.

House Democrats want to add to the Defense appropriations bill a jobs package that includes an extension of unemployment benefits, extension of  COBRA health benefits, a small-business tax break, a public-works package, Medicaid assistance to states and food stamps.

Senate leaders reportedly want a smaller public-works package and want to strike food stamps and Medicaid assistance.

House and Senate leaders are also discussing a plan to develop a debt limit package that would include the pay-go provision demanded by the House and the fiscal reform commission demanded by Senate Democratic centrists.

The debt limit deal would be included in the defense bill because the terms of the Senate healthcare debate dictate that it can be interrupted only for certain types of bills.

The House would have to wait for the Senate to deal with the defense bill, then send it back to the House, requiring the Saturday vote.

Because of notice requirements, it takes several days to bring up a bill. The earliest the defense appropriations measure could be brought up in the House is Wednesday. Delays could push it to Saturday or beyond. If a defense appropriations measure isn’t passed by Friday, Dec. 18, Congress must write another continuing resolution to avoid a shutdown of some government agencies.

And the $12.1 trillion debt limit must be raised soon. The federal debt was at $12.08 trillion as of Friday, according to the Treasury Department. If the limit is breached, the government would default.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said last week that the debt ceiling increase could be $1.8 trillion or $1.9 trillion. The House had passed a $925 billion increase in the debt ceiling earlier this year, but it was never taken up by the Senate. A larger increase would allow lawmakers to avoid another vote on the debt before the November midterms. The 2010 deficit is expected to surpass $1 trillion.

But before any debt increase is attached to the defense bill, House and Senate negotiators must hash out a deal on a special fiscal commission that would deal with the government’s long-term fiscal solvency.

Centrist Democrats in the Senate have ruled out voting for the debt ceiling raise unless they get a floor vote on the commission.

The commission, championed by Sens. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), would be tasked with producing a package of reforms that would be ensured up-or-down votes in both chambers of Congress. Its backers, including about a dozen Democrats, have said that a special process is needed because lawmakers are loath to tackle fiscal reforms — such as tax increases and spending cuts — through the regular committees.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) reiterated the pledge on Sunday to oppose any debt limit increase that doesn’t come with a commission vote.

“We both are working on something to say we’re not going to vote to increase the debt unless and until we begin to deal in a serious manner, outside of regular order, with our deficit entitlement problem,” said McCaskill during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”

The commission has strong opposition. Both Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) have said that the regular committees could deal with any fiscal reforms, pointing to the deficit-reducing healthcare bill as evidence.

“If Congress is going to outsource its core fiscal responsibilities, why stop with just those responsibilities?” Baucus said. “Why not cede to this commission all of the legislation in the next Congress?”

House Democrats have instead pushed for a statutory “pay-as-you-go” mechanism that would require any increases in mandatory spending to be offset by either cuts in other spending or new taxes. While the House passed a pay-go bill earlier this year, Conrad and other senior senators have voiced skepticism of the House proposal, noting that it doesn’t apply to tax cuts and Medicare spending that could add billions in debt.

An aide to Pelosi said she has not made a decision on attending the climate talks in Copenhagen this week, but hopes to decide in the next day or so. 

 
Ben Geman contributed to this article.